Light the Night
The Christmas Tree Festival Rings in the Holiday Season with Magic, Merriment and Making a Difference
Thirty-one years ago, when the Barnum Festival needed a fundraiser, a small group of Fairfield residents got together and dreamed up a Christmas tree festival, fashioned after one in New Canaan. The group, including Carol and Dwight Wheeler, Pat Grabeau (now Moore) and Candace Raveis, began planning the inaugural fundraiser, which raised $12,500. Little did they know then that this seed would germinate into the Fairfield Christmas Tree Festival, a three-day holiday extravaganza, which is now a beloved holiday tradition attended by 3,000 people, raising between $150,000 and $200,000 for a local charity every year.
Held the first weekend in December, the Christmas Tree Festival depends on an all-volunteer army of Christmas angels to transform the historic fifteen-room Burr Homestead in the heart of downtown Fairfield into a winter wonderland. Professional interior designers and decorators—all of whom volunteer their time and services—deck the halls with all manner of holiday greenery, bows, garlands and ornaments. In the weeks leading up to the event, the Homestead buzzes with volunteers climbing ladders, wielding hammers and turning bare archways and mantles into festive tableaux.
The first Fairfield Christmas Tree Festival, held in 1981, was so small that volunteers borrowed furniture and other decorative items from their own homes to accessorize the Homestead. Recalls Raveis, “We literally took all that we could from our houses…even an antique tester bed for the ‘Waiting for Santa’ room.
“During those start-up years, our families were used to missing chairs, sofas, beds, rugs for the duration of the event. In those days, there were so few decorators that it took us a good three weeks of day-and-night work to prepare for the event. Now, we move in the Monday before Thanksgiving and the Preview Party is the next Thursday night. Our husbands and children, family and friends got conscripted in the ‘old’ days to help do everything so that we could spend as little of our hard-earned dollars on set up. It was a real family affair.”
In that inaugural year, the festival raised $12,500 for the Barnum Festival in Bridgeport. “We thought that was a huge number back then,” jokes Wheeler, a founding member and presently festival board president. “It’s not much when you compare it to the 2010 recipient, the Burroughs Community Center in Bridgeport, which recently received a check for $236,000.”
But the core inaugural committee, she recalls, “had so much fun doing this festival that they decided to incorporate, form a board and stage the festival every year for the benefit of organizations that were in need in the community.” Several founding members of this holiday tradition continue to actively serve on the festival’s board and honorary board.
Raveis quips, “Each year, we think perhaps it’s time to retire, but the festival keeps calling us back. Perhaps it’s the magic that everyone brings to the effort, perhaps it’s watching our ‘baby’ and how it has evolved into such a wonderful special event. I think, personally, it has a lot to do with all the terrific young women who have joined the cause. Watching them, helping them, learning from them is a constant joy. I think that everyone feels pride of ownership in this event and it is my hope that it will remain the ‘start’ of the Christmas season in Fairfield for many years to come.”
Each year, people of all ages walk through the doors of the Burr Homestead during the festival weekend. It takes about 200 volunteers—many working year-round—to dream up the design concepts, decorate all the Christmas trees, wreaths, garland and sprays, and jazz up the historic home with help from professional designers.
Says Festival Board Member and past President Kristin Nick, “The FCTF is unique because it is a tradition that the entire town and surrounding communities look forward to at the beginning of the holidays. Hundreds of volunteers work together to create a glittering holiday event that thousands of people attend. They reflect the spirit of the season by coming together to make a difference in the lives of those who need it most.” Local businesses and community leaders also donate valuable time, items and services to make it a success.
Raveis says, “It has turned into a really wonderful, happy event. Through the years, exhaustion, jubilation and joy, we’ve formed many lasting friendships. When the festival meetings start up every fall, it’s like coming home.
“We felt—and still feel—that it is a privilege to have the opportunity to help those less fortunate in such a creative and fun way, especially because it’s the start of the Christmas season. The grant proposals we read keep us grounded to the reality of how fortunate we are and how we, as individuals, can make a difference in people’s lives. The extra food at this event goes to the homeless shelter, extra Christmas trees to families that can’t afford one for themselves…the donations go on and on.”
In the early years, a number of nonprofit agencies benefitted from the festival, but that changed around 1990. “We determined to have fewer recipients so that the dollars we earned would really impact an agency’s program,” says Raveis. “From that point on, we dedicated our funds to one agency, or possibly two agencies, and we asked them to help us run the festival under our guidelines and find underwriting from their donor lists.”
Wheeler says, “I never envisioned it would continue for so long, grow so large or raise as much money as it has for local charitable organizations.” In more recent years, the festival has raised about $150,000 to $200,000. In its history, the event has raised more than $3 million, Nick says, adding that 100 percent of the net proceeds are donated to the designated nonprofit.
This year, the event takes on special significance, as the founders celebrate Thirty Years of Giving. This year’s recipient is St. Vincent’s Special Needs Services in Trumbull, which provides lifelong education and therapeutic programs for children and adults with multiple developmental disabilities, including Cerebral Palsy, and special health care needs.
A festive source of inspiration for holiday décor, the event offers fragrant, handmade Christmas wreaths, trees and garlands for sale, as well as custom-made, fresh wreaths. “You can bring in a fabric swatch or tell us your colors, and one of our designers will custom-make a wreath right in front of your eyes. It’s very special,” says Carol Timpanelli, this year’s event leader, who is working with fellow chairs Christine Brown and Christina Longden.
Says Nick, “Every year, when the festival opens with the Preview Party on Thursday night, I am blown away by how the Burr Mansion is transformed into a magical holiday venue. A beautifully decorated tent sparkles with lights and crackles with the energy of the festive group of attendees who come to celebrate the kickoff to the holiday season!”
The festival features the designer-decorated rooms, live music, photos with Santa, a holiday boutique and the raffling of a handmade quilt by award-winning quilt-maker Cecily Zerega, one of the founding organizers of the first festival.
There are special events for people of all ages that include a Thursday night Preview Party Gala, a children’s event on Friday from 5 to 7 p.m., an English Christmas Tea on Sunday from noon to 2 p.m., and, back by popular demand, a wine tasting on Saturday evening.
“The Children’s event sells out every year,” says Timpanelli. “It’s a tradition where parents who took their kids years ago are now taking their grandkids. Another great tradition that we added recently is the authentic English Tea. When we added the wine tasting last year, ticket sales went through the roof!”
Not surprisingly, the grand festival outgrew the space at Burr Homestead a few years back, so the troupe brought in huge tents to extend the square footage for special-event programming throughout the festival.
Timpanelli says it takes a village—and a year—to transform the space and plan all of the events. “After it’s all over, we need a vacation!” she says, cheerfully.
More information on the event at fairfieldchristmastreefestival.org